Monday, October 1, 2012

A Coming Storm of Light

Northern Lights
NASA Image, Aurora over Midwestern US
Imagine mysterious curtains of crimson wavering in the night sky, while in a fit of madness, electrical equipment goes haywire.  That’s what happened in early September of 1859.  Literally out of the blue, telegraphs everywhere began to spark and crackle.  There was so much energy inexplicably flowing through telegraph systems that they continued to transmit even after being turned off.   Some operators reported being severely shocked.

In 1859, a particularly powerful stream of particles from the sun hit the earth straight on.  For two days, unusually brilliant auroras could be seen across the planet, even in the tropics.  More than a century later, we still don’t fully understand solar storms and the auroras they generate.  The Inuit people tell us the Northern Lights sing; only recently has science discovered they actually do.

Every eleven years, solar flares become more frequent and can produce coronal mass ejections, massive bursts of solar wind.  If aimed correctly, these storms of energized protons, electrons and a scattering of elements strike the protective magnetic field that surrounds the earth.  The solar wind is deflected towards the poles, charging the high atmosphere like a neon sign, painting rings of light.  The more intense the storm the bigger the effect; in the largest events the energy penetrates to the ground as it did in 1859.
Neon Effect
The next active peak period is almost upon us, and scientists suggest it could be very intense.  Despite all the 2012 predictions, I wouldn’t worry about the end of the world -- after all, our little planet has been orbiting the sun for four and a half billion years; life’s been doing just fine.  Still, it does make one wonder what would happen if a solar storm the size of the one in 1859 were to strike.  Telegraphs marked the beginning of a communications revolution that has come to define our world, but unlike back then, our civilization is now completely reliant on electrical and telecom networks.  

You can find out more at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.  The last time I saw the shimmering Northern lights was on a Halloween night, during the last solar maxim in 2003.  Have you ever seen them?

See my post: Watch the sun erupt in a rain of fire.